Planning and preparing well for your trip to France makes all the difference in maximizing your visit.
Plan the “skeleton” first. These are the most time-sensitive tasks that must be done on a deadline. After that, you can fill in the rest.
Here’s where to start if you’re just starting to plan and doing it yourself without the help of a tour company.
First, Plan your flight or flights. After being deprived of travel during Covid, AND with the various upheavals with airlines, flights are mobbed. Plan early. And don’t be at all surprised if your itinerary is changed by the airline a number of times. If your flight gets canceled, they’ll normally propose an alternate flight.
Second, book your hotels. Lock these in at least 4 months in advance for the best choices and prices. I always use Booking.com. (I do have an affiliate link, but I personally use it because I like them and there’s a lot of variety.) I think their terms are more advantageous than Air BnB, but make sure you read all the details before booking so you don’t have surprises. Apartment rentals do often charge a cleaning fee, like Air BnB, but normally not a service fee. See the sidebar to go to their site and see what they offer.
Third, book your train travel or rental car. I have used Europcar (through AutoEurope) several times and find them to be reasonable. Read the post on Driving in France for tips and warnings. There are links for activities, cars, hotels, and other resources on the Resource page of Oliver’s France.
Planning at least 4 months in advance will allow you the best prices and choices for travel and hotels. Train itineraries in France aren’t available until 3 months in advance. You should reserve any train tickets as soon as you can within the 3 months to get the best rate and the best schedule choices.
As for inter-Europe air travel, say you want to fly from Paris to Florence, there are several low-cost airlines available (Ryan Air, Vueling in Spain, Nikki Air, Easyjet, etc.)
Even though the tickets can be inexpensive, the cheaper seats sell out quickly. Also, you might pay up to $35. to check a suitcase, so if you want to save money on inter-Europe flights, try to just take carry-on luggage.
After your travel and hotel “skeleton” is established, you can fill in with your excursions and special reservations. If you contact the Tourism Bureau for the city you’re visiting, they can offer great combinations for sightseeing. For example, if you’re visiting the Loire Valley you can get a package or a day trip to visit vineyards and castles, even if you are planning your own trip without a tour. Many cities offer museum packages or guided city tours. I try to stop first at the Tourist Info Bureau whenever I’m in a new city.
PACKING AND PREPARATION
As for packing, here are some tips for summer and winter as well as some handy additional tips.
Between November and April or even March, the weather in France can be cold or rainy. In fact, it can be unpredictable all year! Always have a few layers, regardless of the season. Always bring a scarf, which warms you up more than you would think.
For Winter or cooler weather
- Layers should be heavier and can include fleece-lined leggings, over-jeans leggings, or long underwear.
- Don’t forget the hat, gloves, and scarf. You’ll be glad to have them. I usually bring an umbrella (the small fold-up kind) if I travel in cooler weather up to late Spring.
- Sturdy shoes with thick soles are a big help for your feet, not only for warmth but to avoid aching after a day of walking the streets.
For summer or warmer weather
- Bring your comfortable jeans and pants. For women, add in a few skirts. Occasionally in France, there is a heat wave in summer and many places don’t have air conditioning. I find that skirts are far more comfortable than pants in that case. Then when you go out to dinner, you’ll already have them.
- European adults don’t wear shorts unless they are coming back from the gym. Wear capris instead of shorts and you’ll blend in better. Long shorts for guys are okay.
- Everyone tells you to wear comfortable shoes, and they’re right. If you want to wear tennis shoes, that’s fine, though you will stand out as a tourist. If that matters to you, wear other comfortable shoes that aren’t tennis shoes. Never bring new shoes. For women’s sandals keep in mind that heels on sandals and cobblestones in Europe don’t go well together. Flat sandals with a rubber sole are best.
OTHER HELPFUL THINGS
Plastic bags are a big help to keep things organized and protect your clothes from any unwanted air-pressure accidents in your suitcase with toiletries. I carry extras for the shoes I’m not wearing so they don’t soil anything in the suitcase.
Bring a washcloth and a plastic bag if you use them. European hotels don’t typically offer them.
Remember earplugs for the possibility of noisy hotels or plane rides.
Bring a USB cable and a plug adapter for charging your cell phone. If you forget, you can get these easily at phone stores or even the kind of food stores that have a little bit of everything (Carrefour, Auchan, LeClerc). Also, if you’re in Paris and you’ve forgotten something electronic (plug adapter, charger), try the basement floor of BHV at the Hotel de Ville metro stop on line 1. They have a little bit of everything there.
Leave at home: hair appliances, too many credit cards, too many shoes. Very bright clothing that makes you stand out as a tourist (and might make you a target for pickpockets.)
A suitcase with wheels is very handy, and one with a handle of some kind is helpful. Not all métros in Paris have escalators and not all hotels (older ones) have elevators.
If you book an Air Bnb, be very careful you don’t have to cancel. They will keep the service fee AND taxes (even though the money that is taxed is refunded to you.) It can add up.
Think about the following
- Do you want to get travel insurance? Your home policy might not cover you abroad.
- Does your credit card cover you in a rental car? If it does, it’ll save you money because you won’t have to get extra insurance from the company.
- Bring copies of any prescriptions you may need, and be sure to have enough of any medications you take. Remember:
- Don’t stress too much about forgetting things. Prescription glasses and medications are about the only things you won’t be able to get in France.
- Make photocopies of your passport and important documents. Make sure the expiration date of your passport isn’t too soon after your return. Allow at least three months.
- As you pack, think of how you’ll protect yourself from possible theft or pickpockets. All big European cities have some risk here and some are worse than others. Plan on keeping money/documents in front pockets or a front-facing bag. See the post, Safe Travels for more on this.
Here are more insider tips to help make your trip great
Have a great trip!